West Philippine Sea

West Philippine Sea task force okays civilian sail to Ayungin Shoal

Bea Cupin

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West Philippine Sea task force okays civilian sail to Ayungin Shoal

BRP SIERRA MADRE. The BRP Sierra Madre, a transport ship used as a military outpost of the Philippine Marines, marooned at Ayungin Shoal in the West Philippine Sea, on March 2014.

REUTERS

(1st UPDATE) The Philippine Coast Guard is expected to escort a December civilian mission that will bring supplies to fisherfolk and soldiers in Ayungin Shoal

MANILA, Philippines – A week after the National Security Council (NSC) said it would not support a civilian-led mission to the West Philippine Sea, the Philippine government changed its mind, giving the go-signal for civic groups, as well as individuals, to launch a resupply mission to a flashpoint in tensions between Manila and Beijing.

In a release on Monday, November 27, the group said officials from the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS), which the National Security Adviser chairs, “agreed” to the planned civillian resupply mission.

The coalition said it met with NTF-WPS officials on Friday, November 24.

“ATIN ITO! effectively presented its objectives and perspectives, securing an agreement with relevant authorities, including a sea route that passes by the Ayungin Shoal, that ensures the safety of all parties involved, guarantees provisions for our fisherfolk and frontliners, and upholds Filipinos’ right to peaceful travel within our territory. This underscores the significance of finding common ground in the defense of the West Philippine Sea, demonstrating the strength of unity in asserting and defending our sovereignty and territorial integrity,” they said.

NSC Deputy Director General Nestor Herico, NSC Assistant Director General Jonathan Malaya, and Presidential Communications Assistant Secretary Andre del Rosario were in the meeting, alongside Akbayan President Rafaela David and Atin Ito convenor Edicio dela Torre.

The new announcement comes after Malaya and the NSC said last week that the council “discouraged” and “does not support” the mission, which was initially envisioned as a civilian convoy to bring supplies to Ayungin Shoal, where the rusting BRP Sierra Madre serves as the Philippines’ military outpost.

In a statement released on Tuesday, November 28, Malaya said both the government and Atin Ito “agreed that a convoy to the BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal would not be advisable at this time since the safety of the civilian convoy is of paramount consideration.”

Instead, the convoy will “pass through the general vicinity of Ayungin Shoal as far as practicable” en route to other features occupied by the Philippines, including Pagasa Island. 

Supplies, donations, and gifts will be dropped off there for future resupply missions to troops in the West Philippine Sea.

“By visiting the other PH-occupied features, the Christmas convoy will be able to visit a vaster area of the WPS and bring Christmas cheer directly to more fisherfolk and frontliners,” added Malaya. 

Atin Ito is staging donation drives, including a concert, to gather supplies for West Philippine Sea “frontliners” – fisherfolk, soldiers stationed in Philippine outposts, and the Philippine Coast Guard.

The group had initially planned a December 5 mission that would include over 40 vessels. The convoy would include fisherfolk groups, civil society groups, artists’ groups, religious and church groups, and youth groups. Media organizations have also been invited to join the convoy.

Philippine Coast Guard vessels are expected to escort the civilian convoy en route to and during its sail in the West Philippine Sea.

Malaya, even as he discouraged a trip to Ayungin Shoal, earlier suggested that the group could visit any of the Philippines’ other outposts in the West Philippine Sea. Aside from Ayungin Shoal, the Philippines occupies eight other features in the area.

Resupply missions to Ayungin typically take a whole morning of dodging and outsmarting Chinese ships. When the PCG escorts military-contracted vessels, the voyage from Palawan to the immediate vicinity of the shoal takes less than 24 hours. Going back home is easier – vessels involved in the resupply are usually back in Palawan within 12 hours.

China Coast Guard and Chinese Maritime Militia vessels almost always harass these missions. China Coast Guard ships begin shadowing PCG vessels once they arrive at nearby Sabina Shoal. Shadowing usually does not end until after Philippine vessels have sailed past Sabina on the way home.

The coalition has yet to release details of its planned civilian mission.

Ayungin is a low-tide elevation that is 106 nautical miles from Palawan or well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as defined under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Citing its supposed sovereignty over Ayungin, China has repeatedly blocked and harassed Philippine missions to bring supplies to the Sierra Madre. These confrontations, between China Coast Guard and Chinese Maritime Militia ships and the Philippine Coast Guard and Navy-contracted boats, are always tense and fraught.

Resupply missions have also become dangerous. China has used lasers and water cannons against Philippine vessels. Another resupply mission resulted in collision incidents as China tried to block Philippine ships.

China has insisted on its sweeping claim over almost all of the South China Sea, despite a 2016 arbitral ruling that deemed its then-nine-dash line as basis for the claim invalid. – Rappler.com

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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.